Picks and Pans Review: Anywhere but Here

updated 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Mona Simpson

Here is a first novel that may very well turn out to be one of the best published in 1987. Ann August's mother, Adele, is pretty and spoiled. The family lives in Bay City, Wis., where Adele grew up, but Adele wants her 12-year-old daughter to be on television. Mother and daughter head for California and Adele creates a new life. Without the rest of her family nearby, Adele manages to make a kind of fantasy world. The most important things are appearances: a fine car, a good address (even if the house or apartment is empty of furnishings), beautiful clothes that fit exactly. Adele works first as a teacher, then in a convalescent home, even as a maid, but none of her jobs is ever really good enough for her. Eventually Ann does get a part as an Indian maiden in a television series. Simpson, who has published award-winning short stories in literary magazines, has told the story of the family through the voices of Ann, her grandmother Lillian, her Aunt Carol and finally her mother, Adele. It is to Simpson's great credit that every voice is different, idiosyncratic and convincing. An enormous number of words in this book are spent on describing food, how it is prepared, the need for the most expensive beef, health foods, ice cream treats. Food comes to symbolize every emotional and economic state. The cake at a wedding is the single most important element. Carol, the not-so-pretty aunt who has a plastic surgeon give her a Katharine Hepburn nose, turns out to have a most astonishing secret in her past. If there is a central theme in this rich, deeply moving novel, it may be that many people live with pitiful illusions—no matter how much pain their fantasies give those who love them. Anywhere but Here is peopled with characters we all have known in real life. And that is one of the greatest gifts a writer can give a reader. (Knopf, $18.95)

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